Friday, October 14, 2011

Live Blogging ARCA/USAC Championship Press Conference

Don't forget, ARCA championship finale this Sunday, live on SPEED at 2 pm ET. I will also be broadcasting the race along with DC Bash on

1:03 pm ET: Chris Buescher - "I really don't know what I will be doing next year right now. What I do know is it will be something. It all comes down to what we have funding to do. Right now RoushFenway has two Cup cars to sell and all of it's Nationwide program to sell, so they have their hands full. But it is really comforting to me to know I am still on the radar and they want me in a car somewhere."

12:58 pm ET: Ty Dillon - "The deal with Frank here in the spring should be over, I hope. I had a lot faster car at the time and he was definitely coming back to me. It's my job to come here and win and I didn't want to not win when we had the fastest car. But it was definitely a learning experience, which is exactly what we're here to do. I think if I am in the situation again in the near future I'll be a lot more patient. It's a real honor to come up here and lock up the ARCA championship. It's something I'll be able to hold over Austin's head, that's for sure, being the first Dillon to win a major championship."

12:29 pm ET: "We'll have the motorsports spotlight shining on Toledo on Sunday. We're proud of what we're doing here. We're dug in and we're going to be here long term. We're happy we can shine the spotlight on the city. We'll have 85 race teams here this weekend, none of which are local. We'll have thousands of race fans in to see these two national championship events this weekend bringing revenue into the city. We're proud we're able to do that."

12:23 pm ET: Toledo Speedway was built in 1960. Drager and partner Roy Mott purchased the track in 1999 and has made numerous capital improvement projects in the ensuing 12 years. The next project on the radar will happen over the winter as the original wooden and steel-scaffolding grandstands will be replaced. The speedway has been repaved, had a new catchfence installed, has moved the pits to the outside of the track to improve sightlines for the spectators, installed a pit road inside turns one and two, replaced the track's lighting system, added six suites, put in a 3,000 square foot inspection station in the pit area and now will be replacing the 50-year-old grandstand system. The closed-deck steel and aluminum grandstands will match what spectators use at nearby Michigan International Speedway.

12:21 pm ET: ARCA President Ron Drager now on stage. "We're proud of Ty and Chris and we are proud of the role we played in their development. We'll be seeing them race in much bigger venues for years to come."

12:20 pm ET: "I dont know where we're going. We have some things on the table but a lot of them are based on funding. We've had a lot of great sponsors this year but we're going to need more to move forward. We'll see what comes up. One thing is for sure we'll be racing somewhere."

12:19 pm ET: "I've raced a lot of different things and worked my way up through several different series. Learning how to adapt and getting wins on different types of racetracks is really big. You need all the pieces to fall in to place at any of these racetracks. Thankfully we've had a pretty consistent and smooth year. ARCA is a lot of fun because you do get to go to all these different tracks. Places like Salem, every stock car driver should have to go race there. It's so rough and so fast and it's a lot of fun."

12:18 pm ET: "I've always worked on the cars myself growing up. I really want to learn more of the chassis stuff on these cars. It's about learning the mechanics of the cars and getting laps behind the wheel."

12:17 pm ET: Chris Buescher - "We were only scheduled to do the speedway races so we've been taking it one by one all year. We didn't know what we were doing week to week sometimes. We ended up in some interesting points battles so it's been a really fun year for us. Toledo was really hard on us the first year but we came back with a new car last year and Gary Roulo has put on a setup that really works here. This is a great racetrack, you can race two and three wide here and it's a lot of fun."

12:16 pm ET: Next on stage is Chris Buescher. Although Buescher is behind Dillon in the season championship standings, he is a virtual lock to earn the 2011 ARCA rookie of the year award.

12:14 pm ET: "Our plans are to go full-time NCWTS racing next year. We'll have the same team working on my ARCA car move up with us."

12:12 pm ET: I love racing at Toledo. It's a cool track. It's got a great surface and enough banking to put on a great race. I had a ball the last time here and I think we'll have another great race this weekend."

12:11 pm ET: Ty Dillon - "Winning seven races in any series is very special. To win a championship in a series where you know everyone and have so much fun and respect with is really cool."

12:09 pm ET: Ty Dillon now takes the stage. As soon as he rolls off the grid on Sunday he will clinch the series championship.

12:05 pm ET: Press conference kicks off. Toledo Speedway welcomes both USAC Traxxas Silver Crown and ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards national championship events. USAC points battle comes down to Levi Jones and Jerry Coons, Jr. Jones leads by 12 points, with Kyle Larson in third 46 points behind and Tracy Hines in fourth 61 points out. Last year's event was the first for the Silver Crown cars and it was one of the most exciting USAC events of the entire season with points leader Bud Kaeding getting involved in a late-race crash and losing the title to Jones. The race is named after local Toledo USAC legend Rollie Beale.

11:57 am ET: ARCA champion-to-be Ty Dillon has arrived, as has second-place Chris Buescher. Dillon won here at Toledo in the spring and Buescher swept both races in 2010.

11:44 am ET: We've gathered here at the Toledo Speedway Bar and Grille for the pre-championship event press conference for the USAC Traxxas Silver Crown Series and ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. The USAC finale is tomorrow afternoon while the ARCA season ender is Sunday and will be televised live on SPEED.

Ty Dillon will speak of his 2011 season and answer questions from the media, and the speedway will also announce a significant capital improvement project for 2012.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What do Kyle Busch's 100 wins really mean?

One hundred.

If you have one hundred pennies, you have a dollar. In this day and age, a dollar isn't what it used to be. A hundred dollars? That's enough to take a family of four to the movies and get snacks. Or maybe -- maybe -- enough to buy a ticket to a NASCAR race near you and have enough left over for a T-shirt of your favorite driver.

One hundred years is a century. One hundred yards is a football field. Whenever a list of "the best of all time" is compiled, chances are it will be composed of 100 items, be they songs, movies, or racecar drivers.

When the definitive list of the all-time best NASCAR drivers is written, there is little doubt that Kyle Busch will be on it. He's proven he can win, any time, anywhere, in any type of racecar.

And he just reached his own "100" milestone: 100 career NASCAR national touring series wins. His 22 Cup wins, 49 Nationwide Series wins, and 29 Camping World Truck Series wins at just 26 years of age is indeed an impressive accomplishment.

But how impressive?

Does it put him in the same league as Richard Petty and David Pearson? Or even Bobby Allison, Cale Yarbourogh, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon? Afterall, he's publicly stated he'd like to reach 200 career NASCAR wins, a number heretofore reached only by one man: The King, Richard Petty.

The answer there, unfortunately for Busch's legacy, is not quite yet.

There's a real possibility that Busch will reach the 80 win plateau that so few before him have crested. But as of now, for the stat that matters, he's 178 wins behind Petty's total.

Sure, the bulk of Petty's wins came in the 1960s and into the 1970s, many on dusty dirt tracks and out of the way paved short tracks. Many were short races against short fields thin on any serious competition. But the fact of the matter is, even then, Petty's wins were in the top stock car series in the country. That still stands for something.

Busch has 22 wins, which is no small feat considering how hard it is to win just one race at the sport's highest level. But it's not quite time to put him in that elite group based on his prodigal win rate in the lower divisions.

If you're going to discredit many of Petty's wins due to the competition, or lack thereof, let's dissect Busch's 49 Nationwide wins. Who is the competition in that series? Sure, he has had to beat the likes of Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and lately Brad Keselowski, but beyond that who is there? During the past five seasons, the Nationwide Series has had the competitive depth of many of those fields that Petty whipped up on prior to the start of the sport's modern era in 1972.

In his 29 Camping World Truck Series wins, the only Cup competition he's faced is from Harvick and Bowyer.

The bottom line is Busch is driving superior equipment in those series, his Nationwide cars are provided by a Cup team with virtually unlimited access to technology and a budget double, triple, or even more than that of most of the Nationwide Series regulars. While he owns his own Truck team, he still has unlimited access to Cup technology and it's no secret he's spending way more than most would consider prudent in that series.

Since Martin Truex won the Nationwide Series championship in 2005, the final time a non-Cup driver won the title, Harvick, Edwards, Bowyer, Busch, and Keselowski have all taken the glory in the NNS. Meanwhile over in the Cup Series, it's been all Jimmie Johnson. Five consecutive times Johnson has celebrated on stage and taken home the big trophy, and really the only trophy in NASCAR that anyone truly cares about.

Can Busch knock Johnson off his throne and lay claim to a Cup championship? History says no, at least until he quits chasing after wins in lower divisions.

A quick examination of the Nationwide Series all time win list offers further proof. Mark Martin (49), Busch (49), Harvick (37), Edwards (33), and Jeff Burton (27) make up five of the top six on that list and scored the majority of their wins in that division while also being a full-time Cup Series driver. Their collective Nationwide Series win total: 195. Their collective Cup championship total: zero.

Busch has the makings of a Cup champion. But can he pull it off while double- and sometimes triple-dipping? Odds are no. Why? Simple: in order to beat Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, you have to be better than Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Johnson concentrates on one thing, winning the Sprint Cup Series championship. Knaus can reach Johnson any time of day, in the car or out. Can Dave Rogers reach Busch? Sure, when he's not in the Nationwide Series car or in the Truck. Some weekends there are ten to twelve hours, right square in the middle of the time when he's needed the most, that Busch is unavailable to his crew chief because he's busy racing in series that for a major league championship caliber driver just don't mean anything at all.

Mark Martin was a guaranteed Cup champion-to-be in the 1990s and into the 2000s. It was unfathomable that he'd go his career without a Cup title. But he spent the best part of his career, the years when he could have won multiple championships, bouncing back and forth between garages and taking time and effort away from where his main focus could be. He might not say it if asked, but chances are deep down he knows he would trade those meaningless 49 Nationwide Series wins for just one Cup Series championship.

Hopefully for Busch, he doesn't come to that realization too late.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Kentucky's traffic woes

Inaugural NASCAR events are fun. Whenever you add a track, everything is so new and the unknown adds a level of excitement to the routine that fans, teams, media and even officials have come to know week in and week out.

I had the pleasure of working with Mansfield Motorsports Park during 2003 and 2004 as the track prepared for its first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event. My job was to handle the media and public relations, so I wasn't involved in all of the logistical planning meetings with NASCAR and state and local governments, but I can say the track spent countless hours working on ingress and egress plans for the 25,000 people we expected.

Despite all of those hours, traffic backed up. Part of it was outside our control: construction on the nearest highway. Part was just the sheer volume of cars coming in on roads that had never seen that amount of traffic before. Another part was we had hundreds of acres of parking that were rendered useless due to several inches of rain in the preceeding three days. All of it added up to stopped cars and rising tempers.

Just like our neighbors to the south in Kentucky would learn seven years later, we had angry fans due to something we spent a lot of time working on.

To the best of my knowledge, everyone who had a ticket made it in to the track before the green flag that day in May 2004. While fans were upset, most of the anger was the "blowing off steam" variety. Who hasn't needed to vent after spending two hours in traffic?

After getting to the track at 5:30 that morning, I went to the back gate and helped get teams and drivers in, then spent some time helping get cars parked in one of the usable grassy lots. I did hear lots of frustration from a lot of people, but it was actually very easy to deflect it. All I had to do was offer an immediate and sincere apology and tell them I we were glad they were here and we all hope they enjoy the race.

It's beyond my imagination that SMI, a company that has prides itself on the facilities it builds and its relationship with its customers, missed out on that final piece of the puzzle.

Traffic backups are part of life in NASCAR. Sure, the problems in Kentucky are now legendary, but having customer service reps there (or your parking attendants and security agents) apologize immediately would have defrayed a large part of the frustration. For those stuck in traffic on the highway, surely they were listening to the radio, so why not have track officials (if not Bruton Smith or Marcus Smith) on every radio station from Cincinnati to Louisville apologizing to them as they sat still on I-71?

I've been to Kentucky Speedway a dozen times since that first Truck race there in 2000. Their traffic issues then were well known and they addressed them and made significant changes. But the changes they made weren't ready for another 40,000 people thrown in the mix.

Now, since no one apologized to them until it was way too late, those who were seriously inconvenienced don't want to hear empty promises of how things will be different next year. They want someone to blame and take all of the anger and frustration they can dish out. Bruton Smith would have you believe it's the Commonwealth of Kentucky to blame since "I-71 is a horrible, terrible highway." But did Kentucky officials tell him to add the 40,000 seats before infrastructure was in place to handle 40,000 more people? Not likely.

So the fans will continue to vent their anger at SMI. The ticket exchange program announced on Monday may help deflect some of that anger, but the likelihood that it makes it all go away is very slim.

Will fans once again risk sitting in traffic for six hours or more to go to Kentucky Speedway? I hope they do because it's a great place to watch a race. But realistically, there's a significant portion of that audience that won't be back. Are there enough people who didn't go this year but are willing to take the chance in the future to do so?

It seems the answer will be no, based on what we've seen and heard in the past four days.

Monday, July 4, 2011

On the two-car draft and what's "real" racing

The question is continually raised after each of NASCAR's new-era restrictor plate races: is the two-car tandem draft "real racing"?

Racing is all about doing whatever it takes to get to the finish line first. In some cases, it's about having the fastest car. In others, it's about the fastest pit crew. Some races play out so that the winner is the one with the best fuel mileage. And in four races a year, it's about who gets the best push from their partner on the final lap.

The two-car draft isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Go back and watch Kevin Harvick move to the front down the backstretch on the final lap of the 2007 Daytona 500. It's just that now it's each driver, each green flag lap all race long.

There are questions by long-time, award-winning writers asking if the lead changes (which have come in record numbers with this style of racing) actually mean anything. The answer to that one is simple: does any lead change other than the last one ever mean anything? When Dale Earnhardt won at Talladega in 1984, did any of the first 73 lead changes that day mean anything? No, only the final one in which Earnhardt took the lead did. But here's the rub: any lead change could be the last one, even one on lap 2 at Daytona.

For too long, we've heard how the number of lead changes (and also the number of cars on the lead lap) are benchmarks of competitiveness. The more lead changes the more competitive the race, and by extension, the more exciting the show for the fans. While that's generally true, it's not always the case. One of the best races I've ever seen was a 400-lap ASA race at the quarter-mile Anderson Speedway that was led green to checkered by Steve Holzhausen. Conversely, some of the most tedious races I've watched were some plate races with the big packs and plenty of artificial lead changes.

Does today's plate racing offer edge-of-your-seat excitement from green to checkered? I think so. It's not because the drivers are in one big pack and one mistake could take out two-thirds of the field at any time. But instead it's because of the skill and timing it takes to successfully make a two-car draft work. You can go from first to sixteenth in one lap or sixteenth to first just as easily now as you could then, but the danger of wiping out half the field or more is dramatically lessened. And the bonus, at least to me, is the speed which often approaches or even exceeds 200 mph.

Sure, pack racing was exciting. The big wrecks were highlight reel material. But too often we saw The Big One break out early leaving 20+ cars to just ride around and log laps hoping to improve a position or two instead of being in contention to win.

As the pavement at Talladega and Daytona slowly loses grip it could be we'll see yet another evolution in plate racing. Maybe NASCAR will make some rules changes to mix things up once again. Until then, I'm going to continue to enjoy the new-era plate races and enjoy the unpredictability they offer.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

On USAC and short track racing

There's always something special when open wheel cars race on a paved short track. The speeds are high, the racing is close, and the fans flock to watch the show.

My home track, Toledo Speedway, has hosted two high profile short track open wheel shows in recent weeks. The Fastest Short Track Show in the World annually takes place during the NASCAR weekend at nearby Michigan International Speedway and packs the fans in the stands for a winged supermodified and winged sprint car doubleheader. There's always a pilgramage of NASCAR drivers, crew members and media too since MIS is just an hour or so away. And the first Friday in July always brings the USAC Sprint cars and Midgets to Toledo for Hemelgarn Racing Night, sponsored by 1996 Indy 500 winning car owner Ron Hemelgarn.

Anticipation always runs high for both shows. The winged cars can run around the high-banked half-mile wide open with lap times coming close to the 11-second bracket. The flat-out speed is matched with a lot of close wheel-to-wheel racing, and that was no exception this year. The USAC cars run without wings, and although they are around two seconds per lap slower the speed is still impressive and the drivers come into the equation as they're running 130 miles per hour with virtually no downforce.

The only thing missing from these shows this season was a full field of cars. For many years, both weekends would jam the pits as much as the grandstand. The MSA Supermodifieds had 16 cars, enough for a good feature but not enough for any meaningful preliminaries. USAC's car counts were way off from the past, with only 12 sprint cars and 17 midgets on hand. In years past, USAC had sprint car heat races with 12 cars trying to race into the feature.

Friday's USAC racing was close and exciting and hotly contested at the front, but the lack of a full field meant there wasn't any lapped traffic to race through, eliminating a major opportunity for the drivers behind the leader to make a move or force a mistake.

Maybe USAC needs to look at recombining the Pavement Championship back into the overall series championship points to draw a full contingent of drivers and teams to the asphalt tracks. The costs of pavement racing have grown, so it's understandable that they've spun that part of the schedule off on its own, but in the grand scheme of things it really doesn't help because now the dirt specialists don't have to run the paved tracks at all to stay in the hunt for the title. Why not find a way to run a balanced schedule, split evenly between paved and dirt tracks and crown the champion as the driver that masters both?

Television played a major role in bringing USAC sprint car and midget racing from obscurity in the early 1980s to their peak well into the 1990s and 2000s. TV has gone away, and much of the sponsorship money has left too. But the racing is just as good if not better than it once was. Maybe someone out there can put together the right package and get USAC back on live TV. With Versus looking to make the move from a niche network to the NBC Sports challenger to ABC's ESPN maybe a newly revived "Thursday Night Thunder" could bring USAC back to the masses. It's going to take sponsors and people with a strong vision to make it happen, and unfortunately those are sorely lacking in the short track world right now.

In the meantime, if you have a chance to visit your local short track please, by any means possible, do it. Even if it means recording a Saturday night NASCAR race on the DVR, get out and enjoy your local track. The drivers aren't multi-millionaire superstars that you read about on Jayski or even on TMZ. They're regular people, just like you and your neighbors. They spend money they often don't have to be there and chase their dreams and the checkered flag. They run hard, and most times, are happy to sign a checkered flag, a photo, or a T-shirt and then actually thank you for asking for an autograph. It truly is racing as it should be.

Friday, June 3, 2011

On a great weekend of racing, sleeping good at night, and mean ol' Mother Nature

There's no question about it. Between Monaco, Indianapolis, and Charlotte the three Memorial Day Sunday races combined to give race fans the best full day of racing we've ever witnessed. There may have been better Monaco Grands Prix, there may have been better Indianapolis 500s, and there may have been better Coca Cola 600s, but never have each of them been so intense and enthralling on the same day, back to back.

I wonder if J.R. Hildebrand has found a way to go to sleep at night since last Sunday?

We saw Dale Earnhardt, Jr. handle his defeat graciously, only emphasizing the belief of many that he will indeed be back in victory lane soon. But I wonder of Steve Letarte has found a way to go to sleep at night since last Sunday? That defeat seemed to sting him the most.

How many times did the Ganassi teams miscalculate fuel throughout the Month of May at Indianapolis? Both Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon had issues on their pole qualifying runs and in the latter stages of the Indy 500.

The mojo of the Indianapolis 500 is definitely returning, and the crowd is better than it's been in years. But to say it's the best since The Split is just plain wrong. The first race after the formation of the IRL in 1996 played to a full house. It took several years of unknown drivers (and a rain-plagued 1997 race) to whittle away raceday attendance. There were some empty seats this year, but yet another thrilling race and a return to the atmosphere of days gone by should help fill those seats in the future.

Does Dan Wheldon's second Indy 500 win put him among the top 33 drivers in 500 history? Not only does he have two wins, he has two runner-up finishes too. And in eight starts he only has two finishes out of the top six. Those are some pretty solid numbers right there.

Unfortunately Mother Nature didn't see fit to allow the Little 500 to go off as scheduled on Saturday. If you've never seen it, it's a 500-lap pavement sprint car race on a tiny quarter-mile track in Anderson, Indiana, about a half an hour north of Indianapolis. The 33-car field lines up in eleven rows of three, just like the "other" 500 just down the road. A shower popped up about 90 minutes before the start, and after two hours of track drying another shower popped up and pushed the race to the next night. Chris Windom took the lead with five laps to go to collect his first Little 500 victory, defeating Eric Gordon who was looking for his record tenth race win.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Why I changed my opinion of the Busch/Harvick Darlington incident

When an incident happens in a NASCAR race, it's often viewed in the immediate context in which it happened.

Take, for instance, the on-track clash between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick at Darlington. If one simply looks at what happened coming through turn four and down the frontstretch, then it looks like Busch made a bee-line for Harvick's back bumper and took him out.

Without a chance to sit and look at the entirety of the race, or even that lap, it's easy to come to that conclusion. But when looking at a replay, it's often best to let the action rewind a bit further to get a deeper look.

Rewinding the Busch/Harvick incident to the green flag on that restart and the picture becomes a little more clear. Exiting turn two, Busch looks to the inside of Harvick down the backstretch. Whether he was protecting the position or giving Busch a message is unclear, but down the backstretch Harvick slammed door-to-door with Busch. As they raced through turns three and four, Clint Bowyer looked to the inside and made it three wide.

It was the second unwise decision to go three-wide by Bowyer in two days; he was involved in starting a big crash in Friday's Nationwide Series race when he was in the middle of a three-wide sandwich and he looked low on Saturday just as Busch and Harvick decided to settle things among themselves, this time taking himself out of contention for a top-ten.

As for Busch, he showed his displeasure with Harvick by hooking the 29 car in the right rear midway down the frontstretch. Harvick went for a long slide but really didn't suffer any damage other than the loss of track position.

The real fireworks were after the race. Harvick chased Busch down, and after both avoiding pit road and stopping on the frontstretch, they ended up nose-to-tail on pit road with the 29 car in front of the 18. After a few moments, Harvick unstrapped and went to the window of Busch's car and threw a punch while Busch wisely put the car in gear and drove off since Harvick's enforcers were on their way up pit road. Unfortunately, Harvick's car was in the way and Busch pushed it and it rolled into the wall.

I originally thought Busch taking a dive at Harvick was uncalled for. But looking at the entirety of that lap, Harvick seemed to have one coming. Add in him admittedly wrecking Busch in the Homestead finale last season and maybe he has more than one coming his way.

Harvick has never been one to shy away from controversy or confrontation. He got in Greg Biffle's face at Bristol in 2001 and went nose-to-nose with Ricky Rudd at Richmond in 2003. He's also gone toe-to-toe with, of all people, Joe Nemechek at Charlotte in 2005.

Harvick has announced his penalties on his Twitter feed, and he's also said "this isn't over." Obviously there is some issue Harvick has with Busch, and it could be a competitive issue or a personal issue or a combination. It's no secret the two have rubbed fenders on the track on all three series, and when Busch started his own Truck Series team he hired Rick Ren away from KHI, and that too could be a source of friction.

As a fan, I have no problems with two drivers mixing it up on the track or off. As someone who works in the sport, I still don't have a problem with it, until the crew guys get involved. There's nothing wrong with Busch vs. Harvick one-on-one, but Busch vs. Harvick and eight guys in RCR uniforms? That's a little unfair. It's interesting that NASCAR has not announced penalties for any of the crew members who crossed pit wall and ran up pit road looking for a fight.

Have at it boys. But let's keep it among the drivers, as NASCAR intended.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On muddled last laps at Talladega and Daytona

Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Talladega once again showed the several flaws in how NASCAR manages races and how they fail to keep the viewers at home informed of the most basic information at the most critical of times.

Now, before anyone jumps all over me for what I am about to say, please understand that I am all for being safety conscious. Although the drivers involved have accepted millions upon millions of dollars to participate in a dangerous sport for a living, which is more than a fair trade-off, I don't think anyone should be subjected to any preventable danger.

So let's ask this: what purpose does a caution flag serve on the last lap when no car will ever go through the scene of a crash at speed?

Regardless of the severity of Mike Wallace's crash on the last lap at Talladega, NASCAR made a huge mistake by throwing the caution flag.

Talladega Superspeedway is huge. A lap at speed takes about 50 seconds. The field had just taken the green flag a lap and a half prior to that and was still in a pack, so the cars weren't spread around the track. When Wallace crashed, the only cars behind him on the track were clear of him before his car actually stopped moving. The rest of the field could have - and should have - raced back to the checkered flag and finished the race under green.

If there was a pack of 10 cars just exiting turn two as Wallace was flipping going into turn three, the caution would have been justified. However, the track behind the incident was clear. Therefore, had there been a need for them to be dispatched, the safety crew could have attended to Wallace without worrying about any racecars passing them at speed since the race was over and the cars would have been slowed the next time they came around.

The only purpose that caution served was to confuse the finish, Which leads to the next point.

We've had the debate about showing pit road times whenever there is a penalty, but when are we going to hear the uproar about showing scoring as of the last timing line whenever there is a caution flag at a critical moment?

NASCAR timing and scoring should be connected live and in real time to the broadcast partners, and when the caution comes out and the field is frozen, that order should be somehow shown on the television screen as it happens. And to enhance the viewers' knowledge, all timing lines on the track should be clearly marked, just like they are on pit road. That way everyone knows exactly where the lines are, whether you're at home watching or sitting in the cockpit at speed, and whenever there is a caution everyone knows who crossed what line in what position when the yellow lights flickered on.

This would be made even easier if NASCAR allowed the drivers to race to the NEXT timing line instead of reverting to the PREVIOUS timing line when the caution comes out, because on the last lap they also take into consideration video replays, which of course can be left open to interpretation.

It's a shame that people invest three hours watching a race - a race, by the way, that was edge-of-your-seat exciting up until the muddled end - and they go away not really having any real understanding of who won and why. The audience should not need to have the broadcasters give any sort of confirmation on who won, they should have empirical evidence

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Shrub, JJC, start-and-parks, Bristol's banking, Fox, and NSSN

Kyle Busch continued his mastery of Bristol Motor Speedway with dominant wins in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races last weekend. Not bad at all, but he still has a way to go to reach Darrell Waltrip's seven-Cup-wins-in-a-row streak. His five consecutive NASCAR wins (last August's NCWTS, NNS, and NSCS wins plus this weekend's NNS and NSCS sweep) are impressive, but still a ways away from seven Cup wins in a row.

It seems the second-biggest story of the weekend is Jennifer Jo Cobb's refusal to start-and-park in the NNS race and the resultant PR sniping that has gone back and forth between her and her now former team. Now, there are apparently theft charges filed against her and her crew chief Steve Kuykendall for parts her former owner said were illegally taken and then found in a storage container Cobb had rented. Cobb started out the year with a great sixth-place run in the NCWTS race at Daytona, but that momentum has slowly drained away. She no doubt received a lot of good will from the NASCAR fans for refusing to start-and-park, but that can evaporate too unless to focus returns to her abilities and results on the track. She's struggled for a long time to find her footing in the sport, and while she still has a way to go if she ever wants to be a contender for top-tens on a routine basis, it would be a shame to see what she's worked for disappear over a dispute as silly as this one seems to have become.

-The JJC situation has raised the ire of the anti-start-and-park brigade once again. There really is no right answer for this situation. I know that there are teams that start and park that really do want to be out there racing, and they use funds raised in their S&P races to foot the bill for when they do run the full distance. But there are others that are there just to collect a paycheck. It's a shame that there aren't enough teams willing to go race than there was 10 years ago. Look at box scores for Nationwide races from 1997 and 1998 and see how many DNQs there were and tell me today's NNS is any healthier. NASCAR could eliminate the practice by reallocating some of the purse money from those back of the field positions to the middle of the field.

-The other hot topic is the lack of spectators in the grandstands at Bristol. I admit it was very surprising to see that many empty seats. There are several factors involved: gas prices, hotel prices, ticket prices, and the new racing surface at Bristol. I for one enjoy the three-wide racing at BMS, but I concede that maybe they went too far with the reconfiguration. Maybe it's time to dig up the concrete once and for all and lay down some nice grippy asphalt with banking at 34 degrees at the bottom, 35 in the middle, and 36 at the top. Maybe that will give us all what we really want - good racing mixed in with some temper-raising beating and banging.

-The attendance estimate at Bristol was laughable. When you know a place seats 160,000 and it's easily half empty, how can you justify saying there are 120,000 people there?

-I am not going to bag on the Fox Sports crew too much, but they definitely left a huge info gap on Sunday when Jeff Burton suddenly slowed on the frontstretch and cars behind him piled into one another. What caused Burton's car to slow? If all you were doing was watching TV you never knew because they never updated it. Why have four pit reporters if you aren't going to let them do their job? I continue to believe that Fox has some of the most talented and respected personalities assembled on their team, but their execution often leaves me disappointed. From Darrell Waltrip talking over play-by-play man Mike Joy to Larry McReynolds' continued butchering of the English language to Chris Myers and Jeff Hammond and their consistent buffoonery, it leaves me just shaking my head. Krista Voda, Dr. Dick Berggren and Matt Yocum continue to be the bright spots, working hard and delivering consistently informative updates whenever they are allowed to. Give us the info, keep the chuckleheaded hillbilly humor to a minimum, show us the cars on the track, and everyone will be happy.

-Farewell National Speed Sport News, we hardly knew ya.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Carl's consistency, the Gordon/Conway mess, IndyCar's grid limits, single file racing, LVMS's victory lane, Wise's ride, and Danica's first top-5

- I am an avid reader of Bob Margolis's Sledgehammer blog, particularly his weekly "Observations" on Mondays. I do have a disagreement with him this week, right off the bat: he believes no one in the Sprint Cup Series has yet shown the consistency to be pegged with the favorite label. I disagree. I believe Carl Edwards has shown that out of the gate he will be the guy to beat for the title this season. He closed 2010 with two straight wins, finished second at Daytona, won the pole at Phoenix before getting eliminated in someone else's mess while running strongly, and followed up with a win at Las Vegas. How much more consistent can he be?

-The Robby Gordon/Kevin Conway mess continues to make headlines as the two trade insults through press releases. Conway's team sent out one of the worse press releases I've ever read with sponsor innuendo and double entendres right in the very first line. I love a good play on words as much as anyone, but maybe referencing stiff competition should be left to people who don't need to play musical chairs from ride to ride as the driver drops one and then the next and then the next out of the top-35.

-It's mystifying to me why the IndyCar Series would limit its starting fields to 26 cars. The more the merrier I say, and with so many unused cars sitting on the sidelines that could certainly be dragged out before moving to new equipment in 2012, why not invite anyone and everyone? If it's a matter of keeping certain slow drivers off the track, just don't issue them a license.

-Las Vegas Motor Speedway spent millions reconfiguring the track to a multi-groove, progressively banked layout to improve competition. It's always fun to see 190 mph speeds, but there also needs to be close racing and right now the 1.5-mile tracks aren't offering much of it beyond the initial starts and restarts. Maybe that will change as the teams figure out the handling package with the new noses and other aero enhancements.

-Speaking of LVMS, no one is questioning it's claim as one of the finest facilities in all of motorsports. It's an amazing place, no doubt about it. The view from the stands is incredible and everyone who's ever been inside it will never say anything negative about the "Neon Garage." However, there is one thing that needs to be remedied: the location of victory lane. It's in the middle of the garage area where a small percentage of the paying customers can see it. Yes, the Neon Garage ticketholders can see it, but that's what, one percent of the people there? Move it out somewhere where the people in the grandstands can see it too. California Speedway made that mistake back in 2004, moving victory lane to the end of the infield suites towards turn four, and no one had any idea it was there. They soon relocated it back to where it belongs, right where everyone can see it.

-How about Josh Wise's airborne ride in the Nationwide race? Reminded me of the good old days watching Mickey Thompson stadium off-road races in the early days of ESPN! Wanna bet that launching pad is remedied by the time the IndyCar Series makes it to LVMS in October?

-Bernie Ecclestone has set a May 1 deadline for the unrest in Bahrain to be solved or the Formula 1 circuit will cancel its 2011 race. Anyone else wishing NASCAR was racing in Las Vegas this weekend so they could make a bet on the race being canceled?

-We heard the Negative Nancy's get on Jennifer Jo Cobb for playing the attrition game en route to a sixth-place finish at Daytona, and now we're hearing the same detractor's complain about Danica Patrick's fourth-place finish at LVMS. I stick with what I said, it doesn't matter how you got there only that you get there. Fourth is fourth, it's the best finish by a woman, and that's excellent for her. However, I think what we need to look with when talking about Danica isn't just results it's her development as a stock car driver. You can learn a lot more about racing a stocker back in the pack than you can by jumping out front by a mile and winning (see Steven Wallace's ARCA career for proof). She's learning, well, hopefully she is, and that's what matters at this point not where she finishes. But I am sure every top-ten she brings home is more than welcome, too.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cheering at the 500 gives a reason to put all motorsports media on the same page for unbiased NASCAR coverage

The current debate over journalistic ethics and conduct in NASCAR media centers and press boxes is long overdue. With the introduction of Citizen Journalists into the NASCAR media corps, it's time that the reset button is hit and everyone is brought onto the same page, both professional journalists, broadcasters, and bloggers alike.

As an avid news and blog reader, I believe all viewpoints of the sport should be welcome. It's a stroke of genius by NASCAR to welcome bloggers into the media corps as it broadens the coverage of the sport in a time when traditional media outlets are cutting staff and space devoted to motorsports.

But just because a blogger doesn't have the training of a traditional journo, that doesn't mean he or she shouldn't be held to the same standards of behavior of the rest of the media circus. And that goes double for those broadcasting the races on Fox, TNT, and ESPN - in fact, it should be doubled or even tripled since they have the largest audience and therefore a bigger responsibility.

As part of my New Year's resolution, I've been to the gym five to six times a week trying to slim down and get in better shape. I spend long periods on cardio machines and it gives me pause to think, and I've spent some time this week thinking of this situation and then learned of the termination of Tom Bowles by Sports Illustrated for admitting that he cheered as Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500.

Bowles is a fantastic writer, which is augmented by a strong passion for the subject matter. However, he did break - even for an instant - one of the cardinal rules of sitting in the press box: no cheering. Was termination warranted? Probably not, but a warning from both the sanctioning body's media relations department and his former employer would have both been warranted.

But how is what Tom Bowles did different than what Darrell Waltrip did during the Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona? Waltrip openly cheered for, and even gave his best redneck hoot, for his brother as he crossed the line to win the race. Is that appropriate?

Okay, so the next comparison then is if Waltrip can't do it, why was Ned Jarrett allowed to when Dale Jarrett won at Daytona in 1993?

What's the difference?

It's a huge difference. Jarrett did it reluctantly; remember, Ken Squier was told to lay back and Ned was told to bring him home on the last lap. Furthermore, he never used his position as a broadcaster with CBS and ESPN to get his son a ride. The younger Jarrett spent many years toiling in virtual anonymity on the North Carolina short tracks and in the Busch Series before earning a shot at the big time based on talent alone, not because his father would give his team or sponsors additional coverage if he was hired. In fact, he never went out of his way to promote any of Dale Jarrett's sponsors. Can Waltrip honestly say that? Can Larry McReynolds say it? No, neither can. They both promote their own agendas, which includes Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota, Brandon McReynolds, and any other company or entity that offers them cash for an endorsement.

How many other television broadcasters have a conflict of interest? The question would be better answered if you asked which broadcasters do NOT have a conflict of interest within the garage area.

The NASCAR audience deserves unbiased coverage and commentary from broadcasters. Bloggers, who may only be covering the sport from a narrow perspective, say they're covering a certain driver, team, or manufacturer, should still adhere to the same professional standards of behavior as their professional brethren. Dress professionally, act professionally and courteously, and check your fan card at the door to the press box or media center.

Now that the gates are open, maybe NASCAR should offer some sort of Citizen Journalist orientation at each event, or at the very least send along a sheet of guidelines with each credential confirmation. It could be very simple: here is what you can do (go into the garage area, sit in on press conferences, ask questions, take pictures, etc.), here is how you should dress (business casual), here are some tips to get an interview (be polite, work with public relations reps, ask for a scheduled appointment, or join in one of the media availabilies), and here is what NOT to do (wear a driver t-shirt, cheer in the press box, interfere with a one-on-one interview, etc.).

And with that, NASCAR and its broadcast partners should set similar guidelines. No cheering for anyone. No wearing of sponsor logos on your apparel. No emceeing media or hospitality events for teams and/or drivers involved in the series you cover. No active team owners on the air (imagine Jerry Jones in the booth calling the Super Bowl!). If you have a relative on a team or on the track, check emotions at the door - and if that repeatedly proves to be a problem then you're out. The viewers at home expect - and they deserve - unbiased commentary and analysis.

Monday, February 28, 2011

On the health of the Truck Series, aggregating win totals, broadcast quality, Jeff Gordon as the underdog, and crashing back to earth

A few notes and observations following a mildly entertaining weekend at Phoenix International Raceway...

- The Camping World Truck Series, while still not on the radar of most of the Sprint Cup garage, is in danger of transforming into another version of the Nationwide Series. Too much Cup driver involvement, too little chance for series regulars to win, and too many combination races with the Cup Series is robbing the series of its identity. For most of its existence, the series stood on its own with numerous stand-alone races in markets not touched by the Sprint Cup and/or Nationwide Series. Those days, sadly, are long gone. Unfortunately, the series is now seen only as easy pickin's for guys like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Clint Bowyer to pad their "NASCAR national touring series" win totals.

- While on that point, we need to put an end to aggregating win totals and making it seem important. Is it impressive that Kyle Busch has 88 career wins among the Truck, Nationwide, and Cup Series? Yes it is. Does it put him in the same league as Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon? No it does not. He has 19 Cup wins. That's an impressive number in and of itself, but he's still 60+ wins in the majors away from joining those guys.

- Leading every lap in a race is impressive. While the action at the front of the pack wasn't always hot in Saturday's Nationwide Series race, it's too bad ESPN chose not to show any of the racing among the rest of the field. Too often NASCAR's broadcast partners choose to show the drivers in the top three, even when they're running by themselves, instead of showing us the race. Maybe NASCAR is not compatible with today's personality-driven mindset. I for one don't want to see four or five drivers all day simply because they're the most famous (or the "Fan Favorite") but I do want to see actual racing. I think it's interesting that the networks continue to show us the drivers they think we all want to see and the ratings have slipped. I have a feeling if they had showed us the racing and covered the total event instead of the drivers that fit into their pre-conceived storylines the ratings might not have dipped so severely.

- I am sure there were a lot of people watching on Sunday that never thought they would cheer for Jeff Gordon to win that were very happy with the results at Phoenix. Who ever would have thought that Jeff Gordon, once hated as the guy who wins too much, would be the underdog?

- The Big One at Phoenix? It's more likely than you think! The first 100 laps at PIR were brutal, with a lot of carnage and some contenders taken out and others left with damage. Is the way the drivers are racing each other now due to the new point system, which doesn't really put more of a focus on winning but instead puts more pressure not to finish badly? There's been a lot of hard racing both at Daytona and at Phoenix, and it will be interesting to see if it carries over to Las Vegas this weekend.

- It's funny to hear Juan Montoya say it's too far to travel between Charlotte and Las vegas as a reason for him not to pursue the $5 million bonus available to non-IndyCar Series regulars for their season finale on October 16. How many Cup drivers traveled to Milwaukee and Road America from Sonoma for a Nationwide Series race over the last five years? The mileage between Sonoma and Milwaukee is approximately 2,149. The mileage between Charlotte and Las vegas is 2,218. Next excuse please...

- It was time for some of those heartwarming stories at Daytona to come crashing back to earth at Phoenix. Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne had a whirlwind week, but his return to the cockpit was nothing but frustration as he crashed all three days - first in Cup series practice, then in the Nationside Series race, and again in the Cup race on Sunday. People forget that although he's now a Daytona 500 winner, he's still a pretty raw rookie when it comes to the Sprint Cup Series. Racing at Daytona and racing at Phoenix have zero in common, and each takes a totally different skill set. He's still good, don't get me wrong, but it could take him a while to develop at the so-called "drivers tracks," places like Phoenix, Martinsville, Bristol, etc.

- Another heartwarmer turned heartbreaker was Brian Keselowski, who went from finishing fifth in the Gatorade Duel to qualify for the Daytona 500 to DNQing at Phoenix. That's a long way to go only to turn around and head for home with nothing to show for it. Hopefully the next time Brian comes to the track he's up to speed and in the show; like I said last week the only thing he needs to get in there and mix it up with his younger brother is money.

You can follow me on Twitter @ChasKrall

Monday, February 21, 2011

A few SpeedWeeks Thoughts

A few thoughts on the recently completed Daytona SpeedWeeks…

- The two-car draft phenomenon wasn’t necessarily all that aesthetically pleasing, but it raised the level of excitement throughout the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races immensely. Seeing cars run 200 miles per hour was breathtaking, and that was all due to the two-car drafts. While some of the techniques used in the old pack-style of drafting carried over, it showcased a new level of skill and bravery that we haven’t seen at Daytona in many years. Not surprisingly, some drivers that excelled in the old style of racing struggled. Not surprisingly, a young driver with no drafting experience in packs won, I believe in large part because he didn’t have to unlearn anything to succeed.

- While the Wood Bros. Racing team was the winner of the race, the official car owner listed in all of NASCAR’s post-race reports was none other than The King, Richard Petty. With former Wood Bros. Driver David Pearson being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, with the throwback paint job on the car, and it being the 35th anniversary of the 1976 Petty-Pearson finish at the 500, it’s really a nice twist that Petty (who transferred the points from the shut down No. 19 Richard Petty Motorsports team to guarantee the No. 21 a spot in the field for the 500) and the Woods somehow managed to share the victory together, even if it’s just on paper.

- There is a reason why NASCAR races aren’t just one lap. Success doesn’t automatically go to the fastest car that way. One has to finish before they can finish first. All of the negative comments about Jennifer Jo Cobb and Jeffrey Earnhardt lucking into good finishes in Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race are nothing more than sour grapes. They both did a great job of staying out of trouble and being there at the end. It doesn’t matter how you get there, only that you did. Ask Derrike Cope if it matters to him that he didn’t lap the field en route to Daytona 500 glory. Would it have been nice? Sure. Did he win the race without it? Sure did, and that’s all that matters.

- If there was any justice in the racing world, Regan Smith would have been battling with Trevor Bayne for the win in the Daytona 500. Smith was excellent all week and even with the accident on the backstretch that left his No. 78 Chevrolet bruised and battered he still managed to salvage a top-ten. Hopefully he can carry some of the momentum from Daytona to some other races this season – particularly at Talladega in a couple of months.

- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. seemed like a different man on Sunday. The competitive fire was there, there was the Earnhardt swagger coming across in his radio transmissions, and he drove perhaps the smartest race I’ve seen him drive in his career. I really thought he had a chance to win, even with the late-race flat tire. But that flat eventually cost him his chance as he was caught up in a wreck just after the unscheduled stop to change it. I don’t believe one driver’s success or lack thereof has that much impact on the sport, even a driver as popular as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., but after seeing the run at Daytona I am convinced Earnhardt, Jr. can return to victory lane again in 2011.

- With the old pack style of racing, every car could run with every other car. Any driver, as long as he or she could keep the car behind the one in front, could run with any other. This new style of racing truly highlighted driver skill. Those that quickly mastered swapping position could get to the front and stay there. Those that couldn’t languished in the back.

- Someone raised an interesting question regarding Friday night’s Truck race: what would happen if a driver’s window net came down? Surely he’d be black flagged. What would happen if a driver lost half his spoiler on lap 50? Again, surely he’d be black flagged. So why no black flag for losing it on lap 99? Remember, the spoiler isn’t there just for the downforce it creates, it’s there standing nearly straight up because of the drag it creates and Michael Waltrip had half of that drag eliminated in the dash to the checkered. It would have been an unpopular call considering the driver, the date, and the incredible amount of pre-race talk that had been focused on Dale Earnhardt, but NASCAR would have been as justified in that black flag as they were on Sunday when they flagged David Ragan for an improper restart.

- It’s a shame the underdog stories from Thursday’s Gatorade Duels came to such an inglorious end on Sunday. J.J. Yeley fell victim to engine failure before he could work up a sweat and Brian Keselowski was taken out in the big wreck on lap 29. But the fact that either of these drivers made the 500 was a victory in and of itself, it’s just a shame they couldn’t make it to the end.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Daytona 500 dreams coming true

There are days in racing that confound and utterly frustrate you and make you question why you chose to pursue working in the sport for a living. Every racer has felt it – the feeling that the mountain is too tall and the rock being pushed up that mountain is too heavy. The urge to throw in the towel and go back to some normal semblance of life beckons, and some give in.

They return to lives of driving a truck or working as an automotive technician or a plumber. The calls of the fans in the stands are long since replaced by customers walking through the door, the phone ringing, or smoky truck stop restaurants off some state highway just outside of town.

For the thousands of drivers, owners, mechanics, and yes, even PR reps like myself, who have felt the urge to throw in the towel and have gone through with it and returned to “civilian” life, there is the one underdog story out there that proves it can be done. And in this Daytona 500, there are two such stories and both come from the same geographic corner of the country.

By now, everyone has embraced the Brian Keselowski story. Working in a small shop with just himself, his father Bob, and his uncle Ron (along with some part-time help), Keselowski went from the outhouse to the penthouse once his younger brother Brad hitched to the back bumper and literally shoved from from being Tail-end Charlie to nearly winning the second Gatorade Duel.

I’ve had the great fortune of being around the Keselowski family for the better part of the past decade, which came on the heels of being a huge Bob Keselowski fan while growing up and watching him win races in the famous “Black Bandit” No. 29 late model at Toledo Speedway.

While trying to find my footing in this sport, I hooked up with the Keselowski’s driver, Terry Cook, and his wife, ESPN truck series pit reporter Amy East for the 2001 season. I went to virtually every race that season and spent much of those weekends either in the K-Automotive transporter or sitting between the Cook motorhome and the Keselowski motorhome once the garage closed, talking racing and sharing a laugh or two.

In those days, Brian was a mechanic and an over-the-wall crew member, while Brad was a tall, lanky kid who put all his efforts into learning the mechanics and engineering, toting a briefcase and watching everything those around him were doing. Soon, the brothers were racing late models, just like Bob.

Brian won a track championship at Toledo Speedway in 2003, exactly 20 years after his father did. He also scored a couple of ARCA wins, which put him in the same class as his dad again, as Bob was the 1989 ARCA Racing Series champion. Brad also raced late models, but tended to travel between tracks instead of chasing points at any one. I recall one night at Toledo he showed up with a brand new car; it was beautiful and fast. He was making his way to the front when the left rear wheel flew off coming off the fourth corner, sending him hard into the wall and destroying the car.

Brad made his way to the family Truck Series team, but by then they were down on funding and struggling. He still made an impression, and when Ted Musgrave was suspended for a race in 2006, Brad got the call. He immediately showed he had the right stuff by winning the pole and nearly winning the race; a late-race bump from Travis Kvapil taking him out of contention after leading late in the going.

We all know where Brad’s career has gone since. He moved on to JR Motorsports and then on to Penske, with a Cup win for James Finch thrown in for good measure.

Brad has earned his time in the spotlight. Brian has shown the same level of skill and ability behind the wheel, but for whatever reason hasn’t had the breaks his younger brother did. Maybe that’s exactly what happened when Brad spun midway through Thursday’s second Duel race. Maybe that was Brian’s good break. Once Brad went to the back and latched on to his brother, the cameras took notice. Fans started to learn that there are two Keselowski brothers, and the second one isn’t just a start-and-park Nationwide Series driver, he’s actually a pretty competent shoe looking for a good break.

The second story also comes from the state of Michigan. In fact, the Whitney Motorsports team with driver J.J. Yeley has also planted its roots at the same short tracks that the Keselowski family did.

Dusty Whitney was one of the youngest late model owners at Toledo Speedway in the early 2000s. Although his drivers didn’t necessarily win a lot, they did run up front quite a bit and he found his path in the sport. He helped the Keselowski family during their ARCA foray, owning Brian’s cars and collecting a couple of wins along the way. His Dusty’s Collision sponsorship can still be seen on cars racing at Flat Rock and Toledo Speedways, showing he hasn’t forgotten where he came from either.

Whitney moved to the Cup Series in 2010 and found it a tough row to hoe. His start-up team failed to qualify for the first five races, and went through several drivers trying to find the right combination.

Working with a tight budget, Whitney’s cars made 22 starts in 2010 and scored a top-20 finish in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona with J.J. Yeley at the wheel. Yeley and the team split shortly thereafter, but neither found much success while apart. The off-season brought the two back together and new Chevrolet Impalas and some strong engines under the hood brought the team a renewed sense of optimism heading to Daytona.

A sub-par qualifying run left Yeley at the back of the grid for the first Duel and meant he had to race his way into the starting field for the 500.

After a green flag stop for fuel, Yeley was a lap down and looked to be all but eliminated from the 500. But a blown engine and a resultant caution flag changed everything. Yeley picked up the free pass to rejoin the lead lap and darted into the transfer position over the final two-lap dash to the checkered, giving Whitney his first start in the Great American Race.

For Yeley, it marks his return to the 500 after a broken vertebra in a sprint car crash very nearly forced an early end to his racing career.

Dreams do come true. For the Keselowski family, that dream is realized with its two sons lining up in the Daytona 500. For Dusty Whitney, it’s the realization of a vision that took him from the short tracks to the biggest stage in the sport. For both, it proves that the opportunity still exists if you’re willing to reach for it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On who you want to see win the Daytona 500 and why

Who would you like to see win the Daytona 500?

That's the question that is going to be asked over and over until the Great American Race reaches its conclusion.

Many fans, understandably, are going to root on their favorite and based solely by the numbers that means the sport's most popular driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will have the most votes. Nothing wrong with cheering on your favorite, whether it's Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, or Travis Kvapil. The good thing is, at least at Daytona, they all seem to have as much chance at hitting the lottery and being up front when the checkered flag falls as everyone else does.

One of the biggest problems I see with the sport is when you ask someone in the media who they'd like to see win and why.

They too will say Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and then go on to tell you they want to see him win because it would be so good for the sport.

Why would a win by Earnhardt, Jr. be good for the sport as a whole? Will one Earnhardt victory have a profound impact on television ratings? Will it increase exposure for sponsors on second- and third-tier teams? Will it increase ticket sales once we hit April, May, June and on to the rest of the season?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is a fine racecar driver, and despite the trappings of fame and immense wealth, he seems to be a fairly grounded guy. It would be nice to see him win again, especially as the sport reaches the melancholy tenth anniversary of his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

But this sport's overall health, and its current problems, transcend one driver's performance.

Did non-racing fans tune in to watch after Earnhardt, Sr. died? Yes they did. How many of them stayed to cheer on his young son? Undoubtedly there were millions. Those viewers stayed for a while and have moved on. They might return if Earnhardt, Jr. hits a hot streak and wins a handful of races. Most will not.

The sport spent 50 years building an audience, mainly in the southeast but there were strong pockets of race fans all across the country, mainly around areas outside of the southeast where NASCAR would race (such as where I live, near Michigan International Speedway).

We all know it takes a lot longer to build something than to knock it down. NASCAR's recent changes - the Chase, the COT, realigning the schedule and race start times, among others - were all made with the greatest of intentions. But with a large segment of the ticket buying and viewing audience, these changes turned them off to the sport. The cars no longer looked like something they see in their driveway, despite a similar name and headlight decals. The guy who scored the most points over the course of a 36-race season might not be the champion. Races were taken from traditional venues and moved to markets deemed strategically important by marketers, not race fans. And races that used to start early in the day were starting when they should be ending. All of these factors combined to chase away millions of long-time fans.

But the biggest problem is drivers that have little in common with middle class Americans. Fans in the 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s could relate to Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarbourough, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt. They were ordinary men who other than racing cars for a living lived ordinary lives. They connected with fans. They spent time with the fans. They built relationships with the fans.

NASCAR, its drivers, its teams, its sponsors, and all of its constituents must work together if the downward trend in the sport's popularity is going to be reversed. We can't put all of the weight of these issues on the shoulders of one driver not winning races. Simply looking at things through rose colored glasses won't do it either. It's on the shoulders of EVERY driver to reach out and rebuild those bridges with fans. Twitter and Facebook accounts aren't enough. Actual, real interaction with people is what the sport needs. When practice is over, they need to head to the fence and sign autographs and chat with people instead of gather up security guards for a mad dash to the dreaded motorhome lot.

Reconnect with people and find commonality with common people, and maybe what was once the most loyal audience in all of sports can be rebuilt.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On Stewart's shiner and a points revamp

For mid-January, there is actually quite a bit of racing news breaking lately. It comes as no surprise that Tony Stewart finds himself embroiled in yet another scuffle, but it is a welcome surprise that NASCAR is at least considering a change to its championship format.

First, the Stewart situation.

I must preface my remarks with the statement that I like Tony Stewart. I respect the man's talents and his determination. I appreciate that he supports grassroots racing. But for some reason, he continually finds himself in these situations - situations where he physically accosts someone. Whether it's slapping a tape recorder from a reporters hands or wrestling the radio headset off a track official's head, Stewart has crossed the line from fiery and opinionated to overly agressive and borderline criminal on numerous occasions.

The latest story has Stewart allegedly in a scuffle with an Australian race track owner after a heated discussion over track conditions. Stewart supposedly whacked the track owner, who apparently is a bit of a big fellow, with his helmet and the track owner returned the favor with a poke to the eye, leaving Stewart with a tell-tale shiner.

There will doubtlessly be thousands of words written and said about this incident as SpeedWeeks approaches. Every writer will want to break the story of what happened and get Stewart's quotes to puncuate the story. I'll read them with as much interest as anyone, this is a juicy story and there are still unanswered questions. To me the biggest part of the story is that Stewart finally pushed and someone pushed back. Imagine him knocking Mike Mulhern's tape recorder out of his hands and Mulhern responding by shoving Stewart between a couple of transporters and rapping him upside the head a couple of times.

Obviously NASCAR would outwardly frown on such shenanigans, but in reality it was only a matter of time before Stewart lashed out at someone and they lashed back.

The second big story is that NASCAR, after 35 years, is looking to replace the Latford System and totally revamping its point system.

Apparently the discussion among the sanctioning body and its teams centers on a system that awards race winners 43 points and descends all the way down to one point for finishing 43rd. There's talk of bonus points for winning, leading the most laps and winning the pole, but all of this at this point is pure speculation.

I'll say this: it's a start. In my last post, I called for the elimination of points determining the champion. Race winners from the first 35 races of the season would be automatically invited to the championship race, with a last chance race the day before locking in one more invitee. The final race of the year would pay a huge sum to win (like what the current champion earns) and would be named the overall series champion. You could also tweak it a little and say winners from the first 32 races of the year locked in and have a four-race "Chase" for the championship, but I think one race to decide it fits right into Brian France's "more Game Seven moments" edict.

One thing does need to be said about that as well: I appreciate France's desire to see more of those high-intensity moments in NASCAR. But those moments are not something you can create or manufacture by adding rules or manipulating competition. Those moments are rare, and that rarity is what makes them special. Alan Kulwicki's 1992 championship is special because it wasn't manipulated in any sense. Dale Earnhardt's final victory at Atlanta, a photo finish over Bobby Labonte, is special because over 500 miles Earnhardt managed to get to the line a millisecond before the competition. He didn't have a two-lap sprint to the finish after a late-race caution to artificially tighten the field.

The problem with manufacturing "Game Seven moments" is that once you artificially tighten the competition, those moments that were once dramatic lose any sense of excitement or value to the audience.

When the IndyCar Series was routinely racking up finishes that were decided by ten thousandths of a second at its 1.5-mile oval events, the first few were extraordinarily exciting. The next few were still exciting but the edge had been worn off. Then, it becomes expected and even when it happens it's not as exciting. And when it doesn't, well that entire race was a bore!

This sport is inherently exciting. Revamping the point system is a good thing, especially if it means drivers are out there racing hard to win more and running around to score points less. But manipulating the points and competition to create those Game Seven moments is a bad thing, and will eventually do more harm than good when those moments lose their luster and don't happen.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On choosing a championship, Evernham to Hendrick, Piquet's chances, and a total revamp of the championship format

A few thoughts as we start to count down to the end of the off-season...

- While I appreciate that drivers like Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, and Kyle Busch are competitive and want to win every race and championship they can, it's for the best that NASCAR has instituted a rule that forces a driver to choose a championship to chase after. The Nationwide Series has always had Cup driver participation, but it was never meant to be "Cup Lite". Look at the stats, guys like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Geoff Bodine, and Rusty Wallace may have run Nationwide Series races, but their schedules were always extremely limited and they never chased after a championship.

- I, like many others, find it interesting that Ray Evernham has left ESPN to rejoin Rick Hendrick in what is apparently a non-racing role. I wonder if that is truly the case, or if Ray is there to help behind the scenes and out of the spotlight. In any case, he's earned the right to choose what he does after a highly successful career as a crew chief and an owner. I do hope that he someday does make a return to the television booth; he is a great communicator, very articulate and was a great addition to the ESPN team.

- The open wheel convergence on NASCAR continues as Nelson Piquet, Jr. will compete full-time in the Camping World Truck Series after dipping his toes in the water in a limited role last season. As with every other driver to attempt the switch, the learning curve will be steep. Maybe too steep. Chris Carrier will step in to crew chief, and with 30+ years of experience there may be a chance for success. However, that didn't help the last former open wheel driver that Carrier worked with, former Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish.

- The rumored changes to the Chase have done nothing but inspire a resounding "meh" from me. I get why it was instituted and I get why they want to expand the field. Who doesn't want more drivers with a chance to win it all, right? But the realist in me says why should a guy who is the 12th best after 26 races have a chance to be the champion? In a true playoff system, a wildcard or any other lower seed has one chance to beat the best and if they pull it off, well, more power to them. But in a season that is determined by accruing the most points, shouldn't the driver that actually earns the most points win? Make no mistake about it, Mark Martin wasn't the second-best driver in 2009, he was given hundreds of points by NASCAR and his points deficit all but eliminated.

All of these tweaks to the Chase are the wrong way to go, in my humble opinion. If NASCAR wants to have a true "Game Seven" feel to it's playoff, then a total revamp of the way the champion is determined needs to be implemented. Don't base the championship on points. Base it on wins, and any driver that wins at least one of the first 35 races is automatically invited to the season-ending and championship-determining race. The other drivers aren't done just yet, they have one more chance as Championship Weekend is actually a double-header: a "200-mile" last chance race on Saturday and a winner-takes-all (say $10 million to win along with the Sprint Cup trophy) 300-mile finale on Sunday. It sure would place a lot more of an emphasis on winning during the so-called regular season and it would grab a lot of headlines for the finale, which as it is currently is constituted, barely registers on the radar with most of the sports media.